23 April 2011

Trials and Tribulations of The Crucible

The last couple of months of my life have been more or less devoted to the design and manufacture of a stock of late 17th century costume for a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

It was no easy feat and involved a lot of man power and time, tears, blood (I came out of it looking like I'd gone several rounds with a lion), my first proper sewing machine injury (sewing through the tip of my middle finger, yep that hurts) and sadly it was not without casualties, two sewing machines broke under the pressure, one of them mine, boohoo! :'(

Still I have learned much along the way, in historical and political terms as well as in crafting and found a new passion for natural dyeing which has been immense fun although frustratingly inconsistent.

The design veered sharply away from artists renditions of monochromatic people in collars and cuffs and embraced the colouring techniques, fibres and fashions that would have been available to the populace of Massachussets in 1692.  From wills, testaments, diaries, court records and social writings I discovered that colour was plenty, the scarlet petticoats, sky blue breeches and jackets, purple cloaks and plenty of tans, browns, beiges and fawns.  This gave me a lovely pallette to work from, defying social convention slightly but allowing for the the theatrical means of alluding to mood and character through colour itself.

The accusing girls all worked on variations of brown and yellow, the maids wore cinnamon (dyed) dresses and they were complemented by copper, lemon, yellows and browns. All the cotton and calico was naturally dyed.  Abigail wore changeable silk (how pleased I was to discover this a fabric is use at the time) in shades of red and green to display her passion, anger, bloodiness and envy. The yellows came from various combinations of onions. Tea was also useful in taking the bleached edge off fabric.

These are rehearsal photos, for the correct look the girls should have  had aprons and collars on and we hadn't got round to finishing boning and lacing the bodices for a more structured look (without having to put the girls into stays).

They are based on Simplicity 3723 Pilgrim costumes which includes a stereotypical Thanksgiving Puritan costume in black and white. The pattern really is just a fancy dress nod to the era, using zips and darts so I ended up redrafting all the bodices.  The new bodice draft had no darts, instead shaped at the side-seams, and the zipper was replaced by a modesty panel and back lacing.  I added a full lining to each gown, the bodice lining was boned at intervals and also into the V of the bodice front to support it. Waist-stays were also used to support the skirts.  The skirts were constructed with a nifty short cut that occurred to me late on evening when reading up on cartridge pleating (the correct period way of gathering your skirt).  I attached together the skirt outer fabric and lining at the top, then stitched on 1 inch curtain header tape along the width, pulled the strings and hey-presto, pleated skirt! Saved a lot of time and tears, especially as the skirts still had to be hand sewn onto the bodices.

Abigail's dress had an extra process to go through as the fabric was taffeta lining, so very fine and needed stiffening up.  To do this I layered 3 pieces of of fabric for each pattern part - a red tulle behind the taffeta lining for stiffness, a red organza layer behind the tulle to add drape, prevent the tulle from showing through and give a softer finish.  The tulle was the last fabric I purchased, I found a bargain on eBay - 5m for £4 including postage.  I was more than dismayed to open the parcel and discover it was fluorescent!  Fortunately the organza did a good job of disguising it and I found the bright colour very cheering as I put this dress together. I was pleased to find that I had little problem with the fabrics on the machine and I actually really like this dress, I want to make it again. The only thing I might do differently is to tack each top fabric piece onto the fabric of the next layer and cut it out that way as I found very rarely did my edges match, especially on the skirt pieces. I wanted to do a similar dress for her cousin, Betty and ordered what was described as a yellow-peach taffeta online as couldn't find one locally.  The fabric that arrived was practically orange and not at all what I expected so the dress got scrapped and she ended up wearing the cotton lining instead as her dress!

It was interesting to discover that the Puritans weren't so much into the wearing of rough and practical clothing as we think.  English-origininating Puritans keenly followed European fashions and their regular sea-trade with the "motherland" brought them fabric, garments and trends from England.  They also believed that social position and wealth was divinely attributed, so if God had bestowed it upon you then you were entitled to wear it.  As was common in that period of history (and still is if we think about it), clothing reflected your social status and your income and by the time of the play, after almost 70 years of industrious occupation, many Puritans had become wealthy. Just as celebrities drive fashion today, the lower classes of Puritan society  became desirous of the fashions and fabrics and court records show numerous people arrested for wearing clothing and silks considered "unsuitable" for their social rank! The upshot of this from a costuming point of view meant it was acceptable to use velvet, silk and satins, lawn and muslin, a little lace and contemporary European fashion as a template.

Keeping up with the colour theme, Elizabeth Proctor was also given green to represent her jealousy and fertility, however her costume took a lot more dyeing in the natural dyes than I anticipated and didn't quite get to its desired finished colour. Her bodice which should have been a rich, rusty brown came out looking decidedly sunny with no time to keep re-dyeing it. In the end a substitute was made for her Act 1 dress for practical reasons.  All couples were colour coded though for the aesthetics and audience benefit. You can almost see the back of John's waistcoat is sunny too.

Elizabeth's Act 2 maternity dress was dyed in red onion meat which produces the most gorgeous green colour on smaller amounts of fabric, on her dress it was almost lime-like but the washed-out green somehow suited her long stay in prison and her jaded character.

It was very hard to find any description of maternity wear so I came up with the best approximation I could based on my research.  It is basically a tent, fitted at the shoulders then flaring out from the bust and side laced tohold it in to start and allowing for expansion. The picture on the right is pre-dyeing.  It is made in calico lined with cotton and is incredibly heavy, I couldn't imagine it being practical at all for a genuine maternity dress but it held a certain charm!

Giles Corey was intended to be a fine looking man, he was a wealthy landowner, but this is not really made clear in the text and the actor's portrayal of him, made him much more suited to the crumpled, scruffy look he ended up.  The lovely variations of tone and grey-brown (dare I say, stone coloured) came from oak gall tannin which takes very little time to impart colour.

All the men's jackets were variations of one pattern, Simplicity 4923, which was the closest I could find in period style.  The gores were left out to make it slimmer in shape and the cuffs were modified or removed entirely.  The sleeve construction is interesting to say the least and took several attempts on the mannequin to work out the correct positioning and method of fitting.  Once it was clear in my head it was very quick and easy to churn these jackets out. The facing proved to be crucial to stop the fronts flipping out annoyingly with this pattern.

 The costumes are all going to be overhauled for use in other productions and these jackets should prove useful.  They were made in an assortment of fabrics, velvet, heavy crepe-satin, cotton sateen and calico and all turned out very well.  The velvet, bought on a strict budget, was stretch velvet (at £2.50pm) and while incredibly frustrating to cut and sew, once interfaced and lined, it looked as good as the pricier stuff.

The waistcoat pattern included in S-4923 was lengthened to jacket length and again was quick and easy to make.  If you use the Simplicity pattern, as a caveat, it came up small on all my actors and needed some length adding too for the taller ones. The judges had interfaced waistcoats made in red/block shot satin lining fabric, one in plain, one in brocade bought for £2 a meter in Walthamstow.  Parris' heavy jersey satin jacket fabric, the copper satin and Abigail's dress silk were also from there at the same incredible price.  The buttons, which are very pretty metal and wooden designs come from my favourite ebay button shop, Pretty-Chinese and around 200 buttons came to just over £20 including shipping.

I must admit I had truly under appreciated Walthamstow Market as a source of fabric and notions such as thread, ribbon and tapes until a spate of recent blogging on other sites and desperation to save money on a tiny budget prompted me to go and check it out.  I know I shall be a regular visitor there now, I am still in awe at some of the amazing fabrics, incredible prices and the friendly sellers there.

I hope you enjoyed another whirl-wind tour of another costume design and production.  I am shifting forward 150 years for the next one to the 1840s to 1860s for a production of The Winter's Tale and then probably a few years more for a Victorian styled theatre experience for Peter Pan, somewhere in between I might get round to finishing off my 1950s garments.  When I get my new sewing machine of course...